We’re Not Gonna Take It: Irish National & Cultural Identity

“What manner of country is this?” you find yourself asking when you live here long enough and spend enough time reading the newspaper, listening to the radio or walking the streets. Political and economic corruption mirrors on the top of society the criminality and drug-pushing that happens on the bottom and everybody in the middle gets a good thrashing for their troubles. Are these the values Ireland as a nation was founded on?

Actually, what values were we founded on? The first few articles in our constitution are about our rights to citizenship and to be a nation, which was itself a novel enough idea when enacted in 1937 although the international tide had already begun to flow heavily against empire at that point, so we were hardly trailblazers. Clearly these articles proclaiming our right to form our own Government and allowing for the eventuality of a united Ireland are an attempt at cutting the ties from the Imperial British rule that we no longer needed, and felt that it was our right now to be governed by men who inhabited the island itself. And yet in a pure example of the true revolutionary spirit we leapt from one ship to the other. The preamble in our constitution actually begins with the lines

“In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions of men and States must be referred”

And continues

“We, the people of ÉireHumbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial”

So already, from the very opening lines of our establishing document do we behold ourselves to the institutions of Christianity, and it’s no great leap to narrow the specific church down to that of Catholicism, the religion of the gallant overthrowers.

As Christopher Hitchens often observed about the Soviet Revolution when asked about why Stalin’s atheism didn’t deserve to be blamed for his atrocities as those committed by the religious owe to their god-given right to rule, the infrastructure for Stalin’s totalitarianism was already in place long before the Communist revolution in that country. The Tsar in Russia was the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and was thus seen as a semi-divine figure, slightly above the status of the pope in Catholicism, so when Stalin came to power he needed only to navigate the already present hierarchy, a thing that can’t be washed away in a single night in October or even in a few generations. That revolution managed to basically effect a complete reshuffling of individuals into the positions the revolution hoped to overthrow. Similarly in Ireland did we jump from the nipple of the British to that of the Vatican, just as today, as a result of our brash and uninspired founding do we find ourselves suckling upon that of Germany.

It’s a kind of disbelief in our own abilities that has led to the continuation of this mindset in Ireland. Here we marvel at the Americans’ propensity to encourage one another in their endeavours, then wonder why the only truly successful people in this country end up leaving and never coming back. We don’t trust anybody whose ideas are not cemented in the doctrines of an already existing institution, and so the frightening liberal ideas that float in from the continent and combat against the status quo upheld by our two centre-right political parties who alternate control of Government are swatted away for their being frighteningly “new” and “idealistic”.

For this reason the amendments to our Constitution have never been so much idealistic and forward-looking as they have been reactions to unavoidable events, like finally doing the job you’re supposed to do because your boss says he’ll fire you if you don’t do it immediately. Perhaps this is a post-colonial hangup experienced by all countries who manage to squeeze their way from under the thumb of Imperial powers, but consider the first amendment to our Constitution, relating to an article dealing with what constitutes a “time of war”, brought in at the outset of the Second World War:

“Extended to conflicts in which the State is not a participant the provision for a state of emergency to secure the public safety and preservation of the State in time of war or armed rebellion”

Against that of another ex-colony:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So after the establishment of the United States in the original articles of their Constitution, the first amendment to that document says that no institution will be respected above any other – where ours gives the Church our solemn oath in its very preamble – and the second amendment basically goes on to say that anyone who tries to force their crap on American citizens will get their heads blown off.

Now we look at the amendments made to our constitution in recent years and we can’t even recognise it any more. What does the inclusion of the Lisbon Treaty entail? What is legal or illegal in Ireland? Where is our sovereignty, our right to rule ourselves by our own will and based on our own traditions? Or is it in fact part of Irish tradition to be ruled from afar?

Who Are You?

So since our glorious economic plane came crashing into the homes and businesses of our good honest citizenship, and as the monied few who could afford things like ejector seats and parachutes slowly glided off over the horizon, where does that leave Ireland? The rabid debate that has played itself out over radio and television and newspapers and the internet ad nauseum has seemed miraculously to miss one key question essential to a coherent argument; where are we going?

It is the same question the British have been asking themselves since the partition of India in 1947, but at least their role as Imperialists and even the heinous human rights violations they committed in their history of colony-hopping is something everybody in that country is aware of. They are seen as a failed empire and whether you detest or love the idea of British multiculturalism, you at least have a well-researched and largely credible basis in history from which to believe whatever you choose to believe.

In Ireland we try to propagate our society on lies and myths. We say things like “it wasn’t the citizens fault the economy collapsed, it was the corrupt bankers and politicians”, when the reality is that a citizen’s duty in a democratic republic is to ensure that the people in charge are doing their job, not to look the other way because the powers that be know to keep you satiated with things like bonuses and mortgages and other such pleasant things to make you feel appreciated.

But this is the latest in a long line of self-delusions, only one of which is our so called “independence” which we’re so proud of but that I don’t personally recall dying for. How can we expect to move forward as a nation without realising what our people were. The myth that we were a constantly rebellious people from the time of the first plantations is pure fiction. The atrocities committed by the British in Ireland in flattening the rebellion in 1798, in the famine in the 1840s, of the Black and Tans leading up to 1916 are all validly acknowledged, but as above stated as historical facts they do more to give the British an identity than they do ourselves. The truth is that despite what today we would consider to be our best interests (preservation of culture and language) the Irish people of the past centuries were largely satisfied with the little corners of the world the planters gave them, perhaps assuming that there wasn’t much point kicking up a fuss about the landowners, sure it’d only make them take away even more of what we own. Does that sound familiar in 2013?

We also are bogged down with a tendency to romanticise figures from our history, while forgetting how unpopular these men who challenged the status quo were in their day. The fate of Charles Stewart Parnell, now with a street named after him in the very centre of the nation’s capital, in his day was pelted with rotten vegetables for disobeying the doctrines of the Catholic church by engaging in an extramarital affair. It was the Irish people themselves who killed the 19th Century’s greatest advocate for Irish Home Rule, and why are we to believe that in today’s society a similar figure would not find himself isolated in this manner for holding views contrary to those of the “people”.

The modern Irish do not have an identity. That is why we so readily take the depressed and fatalistic alcoholism that large sections of society medicate themselves on and turn it into that happy-go-lucky vision of simple “good craic” and “having the bants” that American society loves. It’s the same reason we turn ourselves into a national theme park every 17th of March for the Americans, who invented every aspect of St. Patrick’s Day that is now associated with it. Were there parades in Dublin before there were parades in Chicago or New York? Does the idea of turning a holiday into a money-grabbing venture not strike one as intrinsically American, only the selling of alcohol in large quantities is dangerous, unlike toys on christmas, or chocolate at Easter or cards and flowers on valentines day or sweets on Halloween, so let’s hold this holiday of ours in a foreign country.

We pride ourselves as a cultural society, but whose are the faces that front this so-called cultural identity of ours? Only Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, Shaw, Swift, Stoker, emigrés all, who were so disillusioned and constrained by Irish society that they had to leave for the sake of their creativity and undoubtedly for the sake of their sanity. None wrote more vividly of just how abusive the ideas of the Catholic church were to children than James Joyce, nor how horrifying it is to believe that some twist of fate might send you into an eternity of pain beyond any capable of being felt on earth. Child abuse of the highest order, and this even before paedophile priests became a well-known staple of the establishment.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

What is it we have to look forward to? Further years of self-delusion and myth-making about what a great country we are, or as the atrocities of the British became the atrocities of the Church, will we allow the atrocities of the Church transform themselves into the atrocities of the Austerity State brought on by the bureaucracy of the European puppet-government? Our tendency to roll over for Europe is just another in a long list of Ireland’s masochistic relationships with institutions that are only looking for self-preservation but that the odd pat on the head has convinced us is our big brother looking out for us.

It seems obvious to say that what we need now is a vision to lead us forward, some form of society that doesn’t just pander to international corporations who utilise systems of wage slavery but actual attempts to make Ireland a place we would want to live in, and a place other people would want to live in. And yet the discourse is somehow devoid of this. Every piece of journalism on the matter seems to hint towards getting Ireland back to where it was before the crash, but is this really what we want from our country, a society bloated with too much money and with no soul?

The kind of ideas we need to bring forth a truly independent Ireland are not going to come from the people, because they’ve been educated for the job market – which is still writhing in the violent spasms of death – and don’t care to see beyond the life goals such an education endorses. The mind-set of a nation does not change overnight. What would we have to say to the people of Ireland who existed a hundred years ago, or more, to the people who drove horse-carts or tilled the land? We think with our education and our technology that we are inherently better than those who came before us by virtue of our being born after them, but a peasant with an iPad is still a peasant.

It will take leaders and visionaries to change this country, but as we know such people are historically not welcome here, eventhough they find themselves reared here commonly enough. If we decide to become a country that allows women to get the medical care they need to lift them above their natural susceptibility to having their lives taken from them by an accidental child birth (something no man need ever know), to allow the poorest and most vulnerable in society to have at least a roof over their heads in a city teeming with empty buildings, to educate the young to think for themselves rather than to become cogs in corporate machines, to be a place where multiculturalism and the ideas of others are considered more relevant than those of religious bigots, then we have to make that decision, and not expect somebody else to make it for us.

Out of Time: Museum Hours & The Art of Life

Jem Cohen’s recent release Museum Hours, takes an interesting look at life, art and history in Vienna from the vantage point of the city’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. The film has a cinematic kinship with Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark in the manner in which both films use the museum as a place to discover and live the past. However, where Sokurov’s has one overarching experimental idea in the form of a single take, Cohen experiments with form relentlessly, jumping from voice-overs to conversations to documentary-like museum tours and beyond to expand the range of what the museum as an institution actually represents, outside its original conception or the mandates of the curators.

The Vienna of Museum Hours is unromantic, concrete, blank like a canvas. Cohen is not attempting to dazzle us with surface beauty, he is trying to make us wonder by making our eyes and our minds wander. His method is outlined explicitly when a museum tour-guide argues with a museum-goer about the paintings of Bruegel. She believes that in none of Bruegel’s vast paintings (she describes as documentary-like but anyone who has explored the pictures in a Where’s Wally? book will see the similarities with Bruegel) is the actual subject matter the point. For example, the painting ‘The Conversion of Paul’, she believes, is as much about the boy under the tree with the helmet covering his eyes as it is about the conversion of Paul. With this in mind Cohen shoots his film. He dedicates a shot to this boy in the middle of the painting. Later he dedicates a shot to some discarded clothing on the streets of Vienna, or to three bored teenagers in the museum itself. They are all of equal importance in the larger picture.

Have A Look Around

The Louvre opened on 10 August 1793, displaying works of art that had heretofore never been displayed to the public. Until this time art was visible only to the rich who displayed it on their walls as possessions, the way the middle-classes now display artefacts collected from their travels, bought from street-side vendors. As places in which conservation and education could take place, the intentions focused on both the past and the future, the museums became places for both the academics and the public.

But today there is a feeling of exclusivity around art museums. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that people nowadays expect the acts of looking, interpreting and understanding to be almost simultaneous as it is when they watch the most popular movies. Films like The Hangover operate on simple laughs and instantaneous rewards. When you see a naked Chinese guy jumping out of a car boot you don’t have to stop and think about it like you do when Groucho Marx recounts his trip to Africa in Animal Crackers: “We took some pictures of the native girls but they weren’t developed, but we’re going back again in a couple of weeks”. That’s the kind of joke that makes the connections in your brain rework, changing the meaning of words and possibly questioning whether you’re offended or not. The meaning doesn’t knock you over the head, it has to be thought about, which is why some people who attend museums, particularly the famous ones, seem to consider relentlessly photographing everything they see to be an apt form of engagement, rather than thinking what is the meaning and what are my reactions to it.

There’s no exclusively “right” way to engage with art, but the mentality of feeling compelled to visit a museum and photograph everything you see – for what? to show it to your friends? “I saw this,” – is a sad and vacuous imitation of an experience, exactly identical with people who record gigs on their phones rather than using their eyes and minds to allow it to affect them in some way. My own favourite museum is the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, as it houses one of the biggest collections of Impressionist paintings on the planet. The Impressionist idea of painting light rather than solid objects is, to me, a fascinating one. In this style Monet clearly had the most soul but there’s something endlessly endearing about Degas’ ballerinas or Renoir’s girls. These paintings, in complete opposition to Cohen’s film, express the surface beauty of the world, telling no stories and giving no real insights into the characters, which in a way is a liberating kind of art where the world is inherently both beautiful and meaningless.

Step Outside

This way of not engaging with art in museums is symptomatic of a way of taking the world completely at face value, a thing Jem Cohen tries to get beyond with the decidedly unbeautiful photography of Vienna in his film. There’s a moment in Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities in which Rüdiger Vogler photographs the front of a house and when he sees the polaroid he laments that the camera never captures what he sees with his bare eyes, that is, whatever it was that gave him the inspiration to point his camera in the first place. For Cohen the potential for inspiration is everywhere. When he points his camera it is not to say “look at this, it’s so deep and profound and moving,” it’s more to say “here is our world” and if you find something in it that sticks with you then that’s your business.

Of course anyone who has ever wandered the streets of a city, familiar or unfamiliar, knows that inspiration is only ever a breath away. Where you look when you walk the streets changes your experience. If you (as you sometimes must in a city like Dublin) watch only the footpath, then how will you ever see the scenes of life that play out through the shop windows or in the side-streets or on the tables and chairs in front of the cafés? What do you miss when you block out the world with your headphones or by staring at a phone screen? Replicate your experience of life by buying a ticket to Museum Hours and doing just that. You’ll understand the film just as well as you understand how to live.

The most essential idea Cohen puts forth in this film is that there is nothing in our day-to-day experience that is truly negligible. Of course we feel moments of exalted joy above what we deem to be “ordinary” but where we set the bar of the everyday is completely up to us. There is a piece of graffiti in Temple Bar that is scrawled unevenly in marker on the wall of a building that reads “In the streets of Dublin, where I met my love…” that I honestly feel if it were to disappear tomorrow I would miss far more than if the Mona Lisa was carried off in the night. As feeling thinking humans it is within our capabilities to decide for ourselves what we find to be the remarkable things in our lives. It is a personal compulsion we all have, that too often is suppressed in favour of conformity and hollow conceivable experiences.

Nothing quite captures this idea with such brilliant simplicity as the Simon & Garfunkel song ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’. It is about the word “fuck” that someone has scrawled in crayon on a subway wall, nothing to inspire much reflection – Holden Caulfield had a particularly depressive reaction to a derivation of that piece of graffiti on a wall in his sister’s school – but for Paul Simon taking that extra moment to consider the story behind the word, not even the personality of the writer but the actions that led to the writing appearing on the wall, transforms the initial reaction – the one Holden builds on and gets depressed by – and makes something out of it, not something good necessarily but something not malignant either. Like this, Jem Cohen’s latest film is a wonderful attestation to the act of stepping outside and having a look around.

My full review of Museum Hours can be found here: http://www.meg.ie/museum-hours

The English Language: Good & Bad | Writing

What if I told you I had a house-mate who was loud, aggressive, stubborn, doesn’t think twice about making a mess but is completely intolerant whenever I leave an unwashed dish lying around and thinks of nothing but what she wants accomplished at any given moment. Not the greatest characteristics in someone you have to share a house with. But what if she was not my house-mate, what if she, with all the same characteristics, was the head chef in the restaurant I worked in? Suddenly all those words transform from synonyms for “bad, bad, bad” to “good, good, good”. Now instead of picturing ourselves arguing with this person over the volume of their music, their inability to consider other people’s feelings and seeming hypocrisy on issues of hygiene we see someone focused, determined and willing to “break a few eggs” as the expression goes.

Most adjectives now are charged with positive or negative connotations, completely to the detriment of the beauty of words. “Amazing” instead of meaning a thing that causes complex feelings of amazement, now just means “good”. “Wonderful” is not a thing that stops your mind from its random wandering and makes you consider all the complexity and intangibility of it, instead it’s “good”. “Shocking” is not an unexpected arrival of something into your awareness causing you to stop in your tracks and draining all other thoughts from your mind, it’s “bad”. No longer “awful” is your reaction to a meteor-shower or waterfall or a thunderstorm, it’s how you feel when you wake up after a night of heavy drinking.

It can seem like a degeneration of the English language to simply all our adjectives into categories of good and bad. If you tried to describe a person objectively from their physical features by saying a person has a chin that is “chiselled” then you’re complimenting them, but if you say about a different person that they have a chin that is “flabby” it’s an insult, even if both are completely true. If you applied the Socratic method here and asked “why is chiselled good?” you’d come up with the answer “because it means the person is slim” “And why is that good?” “Because it means the person probably exercises, eats well, doesn’t suffer from any serious illnesses and is a healthy person” “And why is healthy good?” “Because it means you’ll live longer” “And why is living longer good?” Apply the same criteria to the flabby-chinned person and you end up at pretty much the same question: “and why is not living as long bad?”

Whatchu call my mama, man?

It’s difficult to write about real people, particularly real people who you either know or could randomly come into contact with at some point. You want to give as an honest account of an event or a gig as you can but you have to wrestle with issues like “well, maybe this singer would be offended if I say she hunches over her piano like the Phantom of the Opera.” A simile like that is honest and not intended with either a “good” or a “bad” connotation at all, but how do you know how a person will react to being described like that? Is their reaction worth considering at all?

A book of interviews with Tom Waits Innocent When You Dream features interviews with the man through a great chunk of his career, but one thing nearly every writer mentions without fail is that he looks like a hobo. For Mister Waits this could almost be a compliment as it adds to his ethos but it’s hard to think of anyone else who could be described with this term hobo being used as anything approaching a positive. It seems like the kind of word someone writing a bitchy gossip column might use to describe an actor at an awards show who looks like he might have spent an hour at a bohemian party somewhere in Hamburg in his youth.

The thing is when we hear certain people described with certain words, depending on our relationship to the person being described and the person doing the describing, we try to accommodate whatever words are being used into our conceptions of good and bad. Good and bad is a great myth propagated by news media but they did not invent it. Our minds are wired to simplify things on a survivalist basis, meaning good things are things we want near us and bad things are what we want away from us.

There is also however a disconnect between things that are immediate and things that distant or abstract. Like when you read On The Road it’s easy to get caught up in Kerouac’s orgasmic descriptions of the mad people he meets on his travels. His writing gives you a desire to get out and see the world yourself but you realise very quickly the difference between reading about some quirky hitch-hikers on the back of a flat-bed truck and some questionable and rambling character who approaches you in a café or on the street. Instead of glorying in the randomness of nature and wonderfulness of people you become defensive, “will this person rob me? stab me? punch me? embarrass me?”

This is partly due to the easiness with which news media can dictate to us which kinds of people are good and which are bad because of our natural predisposition towards simplification. A person who is “unpredictable” is naturally a kind of person we fear because as a species to not know what is around the corner is scary. In literature and film an unpredictable character is good because we find him interesting and we know he can’t hurt us, in the real world even if he is interesting he can definitely do us harm. What the news and popular media can be held responsible for is presenting us with the characteristics of an unpredictable person, creating a lie that some people are not unpredictable, that some people are reliable. The guy with the raggedy jacket and the cigarette, the nail varnish and high-heeled boots who talks about the stars and the universe is clearly nuts and wants to stab and rape you, whereas the guy in the business suit with the tidy hair and the perfect smile, with the manicured out-stretched hand and the expected reaction to everything you say, he’s your friend. Even after he’s bankrupt your country and repossessed your house you can’t help but recoil from the hobo and greet the banker with a dignified salute.

As he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him

Playing games with words in this way on such a mass scale has a powerful effect, even when it manifests itself in such small individual and seemingly insignificant ways. There are parts of the United States where it is the greatest insult a person can think of to call another man “Socialist” (the same people believe Socialist and National Socialist are synonymous terms). This is where the simplification of the English language into “good” and “bad” becomes dangerous. In US politics and media the term “terrorist” has come describe any person on earth the government there wishes to imprison without due cause, because the level of fear they have attached to the word in the media has given the level of threat a person so labelled can cause a kind of hyper-reality, far beyond what the crazy guy in the café could ever pose.

The reason this is so prevalent is because we are never taught the art of critical thinking. People now are malleable, destined to be guided and manipulated by powerful people by convincing the masses they need not think, they just have to throw their chips in with us, the good, and curse everything said by them, the bad. The Catholic idea of the infallibility of the pope is this taken to its ultimate extreme. In fact all religion is based around this idea of good and evil, which is simply an abstract idea that holds no objective reality. It’s just as bad for people who should know better. People who consider themselves “liberal” and “educated” are just as prone to knee-jerk reactionism against words like “war” or “military-strikes”. It’s a convenience people afford themselves to not have to face and consider the issue at hand.

In the Capitalist system words help define attitudes towards business. A person who is “ambitious” is good, even if it is the ambitions of large insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to make huge profits far exceeding what they need to survive at the expense of the people they are supposedly there to try and help. If ambition is good then a person who is not ambitious is bad, a person who is content with their lot must be seen in the eyes of a Capitalist society to be evil. What would happen if people started seeing a man who was perfectly happy to run a little corner shop in a city or town somewhere without either feeling the need to expand his enterprise or to fill in the gap in his life with possessions? The entire Capitalist system would collapse if people really realised happiness isn’t a commodity, and so at the expense of having everybody in a position that does their job well and competently and is satisfied in life, everybody must see themselves as a potential CEO of a major corporation. And if you don’t get that title, no worries, you can still afford the wide-screen televisions and the impractical car and the ridiculously expensive sparkling wine, just like the ambitious and successful. Just take out a loan with your bank, that’s “good”.

“Happiness” is another word that has damaged minds by being associated with “good”. “Are you happy?” a person asks as you stand waiting for the kettle to boil. “No” you reply, quite honestly, in this moment of anticipation as you think two minutes into the future to when you’ll be enjoying that cup of tea, maybe with a couple of bourbon creams on the side. “Aww,” the person says, a look of pure pity on her face, slurping a tasteless boutique coffee while an expensive hand-bag dangles on her arm, “that’s too bad.” If “happy” is “good” then “sad” is “bad”, but happiness and sadness are two complex emotions, and the feeling a person may get from watching a reality TV show, or from drinking a super jumbo sized coke or from buying a trendy piece of clothing is not happiness, it’s nothing, the absence of depression, but in Capitalism “nothing” is “good”. The difference between depression and sadness is that sadness is a feeling you get from true loss, a direct result of living that may make you feel very bad but is part of a swing, the other side of which is happiness, to which it always returns. Depression is the opposite of living. It’s the feeling that not only is that terrible feeling here now, but it is a result of no particular thing and there is no path you can take now or no thing that can happen that will get rid of it. Capitalism is an attempt to cover depression with possessions so that you feel “nothing” and mistake it for happiness. What better visualisation than the Irish propensity to buy alcohol in bulk and then drink to oblivion.

There is a place for the ideas of good and bad, but their complete dominion over the English language and the minds of the people who speak it needs to be diminished and reduced to two simple words: “good” and “bad”.

Dublin Cinema Life: An Adventure

There’s something incredibly romantic about the modern cinema. Yes, the modern one. All feelings of nostalgia are generally directed towards the old battered movie houses that have only a couple of screens but I always loved the many screened cinemas. From the outside they look small and inconspicuous, but when you go inside you are led through a maze of corridors and stairways, trying to imagine how this never-ending Wonderland you’ve found yourself in matches to the simple exterior, before you finally come to the door with your number on it. It makes you slightly uneasy to not know exactly where you are and you wonder where do those doors in the screening rooms with the exit signs over them actually lead to?

When you live in Dublin City and you want to see a film – let’s say any film – a number of considerations must be made. What time of day is it? Who, if anyone, should I bring? How much do I want to spend? What kind of film do I want to see? Do I have plans for after the film? What kind of audience will be there? Why go to the cinema at all? That last seems to me the most easily answered. The idea of shutting out the world completely for 90+ minutes is reason enough, but also specifically in Dublin to know you’ll be walking back out on to a city street when you’re done has a wonderful sense of disruption to it. It’s like for the run-time of that film you completely disengage from the life outside, but when it’s over you’re right back in the middle of it again. Watching a film on a laptop, checking your facebook, your phone, answering the door, trying to ignore the traffic or not look out the window, it’s a completely different experience.

One of my favourite cinema memories is going to see Samsara in the IFI about a year ago. I walked into the cinema at about 10:25am and watched this alien’s eye view of my planet unfold before me, especially the section of the film that shows how food goes from the farm to the fast food restaurant, shot and edited together to make humanity look like a completely unfamiliar race, simply by contextualising all these typical human mechanisms and systems we’ve set up for ourselves. Walking back out into the middle of Dublin after that was bizarre, like being teleported from an observation point in space down amongst the strange and strangely efficient animals I had just been studying. That you can’t get off a laptop screen.

The Plan

Even an adventurer such as yourself needs a plan and you will be seriously punished for not having one, as cinemas are probably the last things left on this earth you absolutely must get to on-time (add time for trailers). If you have evening plans in the city then the Irish Film Institute is the best choice. It has the most exclusively art-house line-up in Dublin and if you are really passionate about the art-form you’ll rarely find a night there without something worth seeing. It also has special events quite frequently including retrospectives and thematic seasons, often showing films on 35mm prints. They also host a free monthly film club called ‘The Critical Take’ where panelists and the audience get to talk about three specific films that screened in the IFI in the previous month, which is a particularly enjoyable way to spend a Wednesday afternoon, especially when something about that pesky art-film you saw last week is still trying to click with you.

There are days in the IFI where you can feel unwanted. It’s nothing tangible and nothing that is the fault of any one person but it’s something to be aware of. I’ve had both my best and one of my worst cinema-going experiences there, the best being a screening of the 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia a screening the pure beauty of which threatened to draw my image as an icon of stony-faced stoicism into disrepute. One of the worst screenings was an even longer film Heaven’s Gate and just before the screening started we were informed the hard drive wasn’t working (digital!) so we spent the next 225 minutes watching a DVD. Some might consider this sacrilege and you’d understand why if you spent nearly four hours watching a film renowned for its beauty completely obscured by blurry images and a sound so flat that you can’t make out large sections of the dialogue. Also this screening took place in Screen 2, which for anyone above, I’d guess, 6 feet in height, is one of the least comfortable places to sit possibly on earth. If I had not been in such a pleasant state of mind at the time things might have gotten ugly.

These are the extremes of the place. I’ve frequented the venue many times and have never had an experience that bad before or since – although during the fire scene in Days of Heaven the screen did go green for about ten minutes (digital again!) – and many that have been above average or very good. The Almodóvar retrospective earlier this year was great and I’ve seen some of my very favourite films of recent times there, films that didn’t show in any other cinema in the city, including About Elly, A Simple Life and Something In The Air. Also those pesky texters who always come late and sit near the front usually get a good tasking from the vigilant punters who do not expect to watch an art-film while being forced to tolerate wayward light-shows from the audience. For the uncomfortableness of Screen 2, Screen 1 always feels like it’s hosting an event, even when you’ve sneaked in for an afternoon screening. In the evenings, due to the cinema’s location right on the edge of Temple Bar, there’s always a great atmosphere in the place. It really is more of an evening cinema eventhough the ticket prices at that time of day do threaten to linger around the €10 mark.

For he who has no plans, and wishes to compose an evening of sensory pleasures then one of the very best things you can do is go to Mulligan’s of Stoneybatter for a beer and a meal, go to the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield for a film and then wind down from that experience with another beer in the Cobblestone, also in Smithfield. After that you will be having such a good night that you will be perfectly willing to freewheel your way back into the city with no specific destination in mind, glad for the cool of the air and the dark of the sky. The Lighthouse gets to boast about being the most comfortable cinema in Dublin, and while it could be considered a subjective thing, objectively it definitely is. The cinema is located in Smithfield which still finds itself in a state of purgatory between renovation and desolation without ever going into either state with much conviction. This has the effect of giving the Lighthouse an eerie stillness at times as, unlike the IFI, it doesn’t often get people coming in just for the coffee.

In terms of price it’s a bit better than the IFI. It’s selection is not as exclusive but they have a wonderfully elastic timetable so some films end up playing there for months that have been long gone from cinemas elsewhere. They also have special seasons from time to time and host event screenings like the GAZE Film Festival and late night screenings of cult films. The long downstairs trek into the cinema’s underground screens is usually decorated by unique art-works celebrating films or sometimes just anything at all. The one draw-back of the Lighthouse is just how far from the city it is. When picking a cinema to attend the 15-20 minutes it can take to get to Smithfield from O’Connell Street might be a deal-breaker, but when you plan your night well you cannot go wrong here.

Down Time

Dublin’s last three big cinemas – excluding the Odeon in Point Village which I’m not yet convinced actually exists – have always felt more suited to day-time excursions, as in you want it to still be light out when you come out of them. Despite this they are very different cinemas. Screen Cinema on Pearse Street/D’Olier Street/No Fixed Address: my last two experiences in that cinema sum up fairly well its flaws and its charms. A screening of What Richard Did, a film that has many moments of quiet and stillness, was disrupted by the intense engine-revving of Drive which was playing in the next screen. This is another one of those great cardinal sins that sometimes get committed by cinemas, that can be enough to turn you off for good, but a more recent sojourn for a screening of Frances Ha was particularly enjoyable. The place smelled bad, like it hadn’t had a good thorough cleaning in a year, but it was incredibly nostalgic for this, like the old small-town cinemas that didn’t have to take care of themselves because they were the only cinema in town and where else were you going to go?

What balls, what attitude, to be placed right behind Trinity College in the city’s very heart and to shrug at the received wisdom of what is and isn’t acceptable for a cinema in 2013. It was wonderful to walk into that old style building in the early afternoon and vanish into the black-and-white world on the screen for 86 short little minutes. No screen-bleeding incidents occurred either and at €6.70 (€5 Monday’s if you have a Student Card) it’s hard to go wrong, but it’s very much a day-time escape cinema, one where you just decide to leap out of the sun for a couple of hours; spending the evening time there is not a particularly endearing idea.

On the complete opposite side of the scale is Cineworld of Parnell Street. It has 17 screens, including a great big hospital room-like IMAX 3-D screen on the very very top of its long spiralling inner tower. It’s films are generally of the more assured popular types, but they also show Bollywood films there quite frequently. Again this is a day-time stop-over, possibly even a rainy day stop-over, where you can stand by the great cylindrical windows on the second floor and watch as the street below is drenched by Dublin’s characteristic rainfall. The early screenings are also appropriate as you can go to Chapter’s Bookshop further down the same street when your film’s over and then wander down the hectic Moore Street and buy some “tobacco” if you’re so inclined.

The great issue with Cineworld is how very expensive it is. Even the early screenings are outrageous but if you are one single adult going to see an IMAX 3-D film after 5pm Monday and Wednesday to Friday you can pay as much as €16.30. That’s before the cost of travel, popcorn (if you are an indulger in such things), drinks, almost a full ten euro more than Screen’s cheapest tickets for the same individual. In the evenings however the place can get quite packed as it’s an inoffensive impersonal venue where you can very much keep to yourself so perhaps popular for dates and the like. Although walking onto Parnell Street late at night is a sad and lonely experience.

The last cinema then is O’Connell Street’s Savoy. There’s not much to say about it really. It’s Screen 1 is the largest in the city, save perhaps the monstrous IMAX 3-D in Cineworld, which is great for losing yourself in a film. The rest of its screens are a bit of a Russian Roulette. One of the screens is about the size of a pre-fab (exaggerating for effect) and when it’s packed, like it was when I went to see Invictus it can be rather uncomfortable. Besides this, the cinema has the most generic selection of films you could think of – often’s the time you’d walk by and not be tempted one iota by the LED sign over its glass doors – and it hosts nearly all the film premieres that come to Dublin. As for time of day, O’Connell Street is a dreary place at the best of times but if you happen to be on a time constraint and it suits both your schedule and the selection of films you want to see then all you have to do is go, and cross your fingers for Screen 1.

Character Revelation | Writing

Male. Twenty-three years old. Six-foot-five, Slim Build. Irish. Atheist. Hobbies: Cinema, Music. Qualifications: Bachelor of Arts in English and Film Studies.

Do you get the full measure of a character from such a list of information? If you were writing as a journalist and were given that information about a person who had just died to write an obituary in a local paper, you would be expected to expand it to some degree, find out some specifics but effectively communicating little more than the above facts. A “good” journalist would also be expected to add “will be missed by his family. Considered by all to be an all round good lad.” It’s an uncontroversial, unchallenging representation of the skeleton of a character. The things everyone can agree on and a polite side-stepping of any perhaps uncomfortable details.

Every single one of those above terms used to describe one person could be expanded upon, the type of writer is what decides which way things get expanded. Take the term “Atheist”. The word itself tells less than half the story. In direct opposition to his wishes perhaps this character might find that his parents, Roman Catholics (by habit rather than by choice) have decided to hold his funeral in the local church. In his eulogy, perhaps the priest might decide to erase this word from the above list. Otherwise, chances are he’d say “Christened and Confirmed in our church, he in recent years had wandered from the flock. We can only hope that, had he been given the chance, he would one day have wandered back”.

Perhaps that would be the final word on the matter. It would be the only written interpretation as there is probably not another character in the deceased’s life who both knew and understood his religious beliefs and who would be able to communicate it to others through writing. Probably the best his most honest acquaintances could manage would be “atheist, but not a nihilist,” or “atheist, decidedly anti-religious,” neither of which would satisfy his own view on the matter.

If he could be risen from his deathly slumber before the congregation of believers and be given a voice with which to express himself (he’d see the irony of this little miracle of course) he’d explain that we are all born Atheists, then many of us are brain-washed with mantras and rules that have come down to us through the generations unquestioned. His current state of non-belief is a return to his original position, but it in itself is not a belief. He doesn’t like the word “Atheist” because it’s been hijacked by people with an agenda, who start arguments on the internet and mock others relentlessly. Plus it’s an ugly word, ugly to look at and ugly to say.

It is a lack of belief. But he doesn’t believe in nothing. It is a flat area on which to build and any book or video or film or conversation can become a building block. He doesn’t believe in gods, instead he believes in people. Not all people, or at least not in all people in the same way. He believes there are certain people you meet in your life who you connect with profoundly, who make you feel more at ease in their company than you do in private, on your own. He believes that all the systems of communication humanity has either designed for itself or been granted by nature are desperately inferior methods of linking two human minds together, but also that the fun in being alive is the uncertainty of it.

He believes in these big ideas but he also believes in little ones; the sound of a melodica, the sunlight through the trees, the taste of a good ale, the smell of rosemary, the feeling of light rain, the crescendo in the first movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony, the way the patrons of Rick’s Café Americain sing La Marseillaise louder than the Nazis sing Die Wacht am Rhein. He believes in people’s eyes, people’s walks, people’s voices and he loves the cinema because he loves what can be expressed through the human face; in a Melodrama, everything, in a Bresson film, nothing. That would begin to explain the word “Atheist” as it applies to him.

Self-Awareness, Communication, Clarity

In A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man James Joyce represents the workings of his own mind from a very young age until young adulthood. When writing Ulysses he goes a step further by not just representing the inner workings of the mind of his stand-in Stephen Dedalus, but also that of a number of other characters around Dublin at the beginning of the 20th Century. His method is similar to that of the Lee Strasberg school of acting, in which the thoughts and motivations of characters are buried beneath the surface, causing them to do and say things that are prompted by their true emotions but can seem totally random. Why does Marlon Brando put on Eva Marie Saint’s glove when they are talking together in On The Waterfront? What is the purpose of the long rambling description of hell in Portrait? It’s all about the mind, and how the world impacts it and how it in turn manifests itself in the world.

This is one reason why Joyce’s writing appeals to some people and seems tedious to others. If you find yourself fascinated by the inner workings of the mind then the fact that he’s the most obsessive writer in that style is a draw. What it shows is that even the individual is fatally inept at interpreting the workings of his or her own mind, so the idea of communicating completely with another human being is impossible. Molly Bloom in her soliloquy can’t even land on one solid opinion of her husband. She goes between feelings of his inadequacy and pride in her own acts of adultery to fondly recalling agreeing to marry him. This is a long leap from the writing just thirty years earlier of Henry James, whose characters could almost communicate with each other telepathically through facial expressions.

To be able to write believable characters we have to know what we don’t know about other people. So much of human interaction is misinterpretation, and of course the comedy of errors was a popular theatrical style long ago where the comedy arises from the audience knowing who the characters are but having the characters be confused or deceived about one another. Clarity is crucial to this style of writing because if the audience is not completely confident in their knowledge of who the characters really are then they will not laugh.

In contrast take a film like Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. Anna Paquin plays the lead role in the film, that of a teenage girl who witnesses/is partly responsible for a horrible accident involving a New York City bus and a woman crossing the road. The film is a brilliant example of how difficult it can be to communicate. Every relationship Anna Paquin has in the film, with her mother, the bus driver, her classmates, the friend of the dead woman, begins in a position of inability to adequately communicate in words her abstract reaction to the dreadful events she witnesses and every single time these interactions devolve into screaming matches as each party in each conversation gets frustrated at her lack of clarity. We, the audience, feel her guilt and her trauma so we sympathise when she can’t express herself, and the final scene at the opera when she and her mother finally cry for their respective isolation is the most expressive and honest these two characters ever get.

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona plays these two types of characters against each other, on one side Elisabet Vogler who doesn’t talk and on the other side Sister Alma who takes Elisabet’s silence as an excuse to completely divulge her deepest secrets and fears. The film’s brilliance lies in the fact that the audience believes Alma is honest and really looking for someone to communicate with, whereas with Elisabet, an actress, we can never be sure anything she expresses is genuine, except perhaps when she screams in fear as Alma eventually cracks and makes as if to throw boiling water on her. Even Elisabet’s horror-struck reaction to the self-immolating monk in Vietnam we can’t believe to be truly genuine. Alma’s feelings are uncomplicated. She is hurt and betrayed when she reads Elisabet’s letter to her doctor revealing Alma’s secrets and later in the film we get Alma’s deconstruction of Elisabet’s feelings of disgust for her infant son shown in two separate takes, one focusing on Alma and her spiteful delight, the other on Elisabet and her discomfort with the horribleness of her own emotions, not just having someone else know them but being made aware of them herself.

Writing for Satisfaction

The literary mode of writing strives towards satisfying its audience through a game of revelations and concealment. To let it all out from the beginning is purposeless, because if we know everything about what a character will do or say at the beginning of a film then what is to keep us interested for the following ninety minutes? It’s the main reason why teen slasher films tend to have such generic characters, instead of revealing their individuality over the ninety minutes they begin to revert back to their primal natures, fighting for survival. Stories of this kind reveal little about humans that we don’t already know and to dedicate entire films to them seems pointless. This is more suited to single moments in stories, like when danger arises and a moment of self-sacrifice or self-preservation are the only choices. One of the best uses of this survival instinct is in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, when during an air-raid in Tehran a woman runs up to Marjane, drops her baby in her arms and flees to the underground bunker. Marjane writes that since that day she has doubted the presupposition towards an innate sense of motherly protection.

Survival tends to reveal little and rarely manages to satisfy an audience’s curiosity about a character, tending more towards thrills and questions as philosophical as a schoolyard game. Curiosity is what needs to be satisfied when writing creatively and often a story can start because of an author’s own curiosity. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is such a novel. The horrible murders of a well-liked and innocent family in Kansas by two ex-convicts is just one example of the hundreds of stories reported in newspapers every day as facts. When we read things like “man shot in North inner city” it is never explained to us by the journalist what kind of person was shot or did the shooting. For convenience we disconnect ourselves from both victim and perpetrator by telling ourselves that these were probably both drug-dealers, drop-outs, hardened criminals who had it coming. Capote’s motivation for his novel was to satisfy his own curiosity about who were the people who killed and how innocent really were these people who were killed (it won’t offer the good citizens of the world any solace to read the conclusions he draws for that last question, they certainly did not have it coming).

Perhaps the most satisfying of stories are those in which the protagonist, after we have gotten to know and like him, can be seen to have cheated the system, gotten one up on the rest of the world. When Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, despite the questionable morality of his vigilantism and his disturbing levels of racism, ironically gets painted as a hero by the news media for saving a young prostitute by murdering pimps and drug-dealers, isn’t there a sense of satisfaction there with the journalistic style, knowing that the medium in its quest to simplify people into four inch columns will never know all the questionable details we know about this man. How fatally antisocial he is, his attempted assassination of a Presidential candidate, his procuring and using illegal weapons. Our satisfaction in Travis’s success is not just in his having saved Jodie Foster, but of pulling the wool over the rest of the world’s eyes in the process.